I slept most of the flight from San Francisco to Vancouver. I was up until one thirty in the morning the night before, and had to wake up at five in order to get to the airport on time, so I was exhausted. Upon arriving in Vancouver I shuffled half-asleep to the customs station, which I had to go through even though I was only connecting through Vancouver, not stopping there.
The agent asks my name, where I'm going, all the usual stuff. I reply, giving short answers. I always give short answers in customs because first, I'm sort of offended at how they treat you as though you're some kind of criminal, and two, because I figure the agent just wants to hear a succint answer and get on with her day.
"Where are your other bags?"
"I don't have any."
"What are you going to do in China?"
"I don't know."
"How much money do you have?"
"Around two hundred dollars."
"How are you going to support yourself in China?"
"I have a debit card."
"And how much money do you have access to through that?"
"That seems like personal information. Do I really have to tell you how much money is in my bank account?"
I reluctantly tell her. She then explains that Canada has an agreement with China, and that if China turns me away for any reason, Canada needs to know that I would be able to support myself there while arranging to get back to the United States. She says it in a slightly hostile tone, but I'm actually grateful for the explanation. I still don't like that I have to tell some customs agent how much money I have, but the logic makes sense.
I'm ready to go through, but she turns me away, saying I have to be questioned by another agent. She gives me directions.
At this point I think it's sort of funny. I'm obviously not doing anything wrong so I assume that she's just upset because I questioned her authority to ask a question about my finances and she's sending me through the ringer a bit just because she's pissed off. No big deal, really.
I get down to the questioning area and it's empty besides a couple interpreters. An older agent comes up, asks why I'm there and says he'll get the agent who will be questioning me. He's friendly and checks my boarding pass to assure me that I'll have enough time to make my flight. At this point my flight is two hours away, so I'm a little confused as to how it could even be close.
After waiting fifteen minutes, another officer approaches me. I say hello and ask how he's doing. He replies "good" in a gruff tone, and doesn't return the pleasantry. He's taller than I am, well built, and has a military style haircut. He begins to ask the same sorts of questions the other agent asked.
"What are you doing in China?"
"I don't know yet."
This infuriates him, or at least prompts him to pretend he's infuriated.
"THAT MAKES NO SENSE. WHY ARE YOU LYING TO ME?"
I'm totally shocked by this response. I've probably crossed borders 50-100 times in my life, and have never gotten a reaction like this. There was one time in the normal customs line in London where they found our small amount of luggage suspect, and another time on a train into Canada where the agent was asking me very personal questions in a loud voice in public, but nothing this antagonistic.
"I'm not lying to you."
"Yes you are! No one just goes to China with no plans. It makes no sense. Where are you staying?"
"I have a friend in Shanghai that I'll stay with at first. I may stay in Shanghai, I may go to Yunnan, or I may go to some other random place."
"What's in Yunnan?"
"Pu erh tea."
"You're going to go all the way to another city just to drink tea?"
"I might. Yunnan is famous for Pu erh tea. A friend went there and had a good time, visited some farms and stuff like that."
"So now you might visit a farm?"
"I don't know yet, like I said. I might."
"Why would you visit a farm?"
"Because they grow tea there."
None of this is satisfying to him in any way. If he wasn't genuinely angry initially, he definitely is now. He makes me take my bag and dump everything out. He goes through the pockets of my jacket and opens up my deodorant. He even takes my deck of cards out and flips through them on both sides, as if to make sure they're not a trick deck. My shorts have a small inside pocket. As he searches them he comes across the pocket, finds that something is stuffed into it, and pulls it out. Forty Mexican pesos-- about $3. Probably not the score he was hoping for.
He asks why I would go to Mexico and who I hung out there with. I tell him. He asks how people live on a resort there, and I say that they do Yoga and get free rooms. He tells me that they're working illegally, as if this is some crime on my part. Maybe they are, sir, I don't really know.
Then we get to my laptop. Does it have a password, he asks. I say that I'm not sure. He explodes.
"Why are you being evasive? Why are you lying? What are you hiding? I asked you a simple question and you won't answer it."
I try to explain that I'm not sure if the computer is off or just in sleep mode, and that there would be a password if it was off. Not a good answer. We turn on the laptop and there is, in fact a password. What is it, he asks?
I tell him that I'm not comfortable giving out my password. My computer has face login through the web cam, and I offer to unlock it that way. Unacceptable. I offer to type it in.
"If you don't tell me your password, your laptop will be impounded and I will keep you here so that you miss your flight. You'll go back to San Francisco, most likely."
I actually consider taking a principled stand and refusing to give my password. I think it's outrageous that I'm being forced to divulge it. If I knew for a fact that I would actually get the laptop back, I think I would have refused. On the other hand, if the option is to give my password, keep the computer, and go to China vs losing the computer and going home, I'd rather just give it. Barely.
I tell him my password and he writes it down. I feel completely violated. He tries to type it in on the dvorak keyboard, but it doesn't work. The password is so burned into muscle memory that I don't actually know what it is. I'm guessing at caps and numbers when finally the "computer expert" next to him says to just allow face login. I tilt the computer towards me and it unlocks.
The computer guy takes my computer, my camera's memory card, and my USB drive with him into a different room, out of my site. The angry guy goes with him, leaving me standing in front of all of my belongings on a metal table. No explanation of what they're looking for or where they're going with my stuff.
The angry guy comes back with my passport and starts interrogating me about the places I've been. He's fixated on a week I spent in Columbia two years ago. He asks why I've been to Canada so much. I'm tempted to say it's because they're so welcoming. He asks about Mexico again, Colombia again, and Peru. Of particular interest to him is the fact that I went to Peru, came back, went to Mexico, came back, and now I'm going to China.
He asks me to show him my bank account on my phone. I can't. The computer guy comes back and allows me to go to my bank website on the computer. Many transactions are scrutinized. He goes back a couple months where I sold two Rolexes on eBay and got Paypal payments for a bit over $3000. I can't remember what exactly those transactions are, and he's pissed about that.
"It's a lot of money. You should know what it is."
Again, he leaves. Fifteen minutes later he comes back and is more incensed than ever.
"Okay, here's the situation. You are lying to me. You refuse to tell the truth. You are evading my questions. For you to get to your flight you're going to need to give me acceptable answers and let me know what's going on here. All of your answers so far have been unacceptable, so if we keep going like this, you're not getting on that flight."
"I'm not lying to yo--"
"YES YOU ARE!"
"I think there's some sort of misunde---"
"NO. There is no misunderstanding. I am doing my job and you are lying to me."
"I'm not lying."
He asks more questions, and I give really long answers to them.
"Tell me again what you were doing in Colombia."
"Well, two years ago Jet Blue had a deal where you could pay $499 for a month of unlimited flights. I visited my friends around the US, and Colombia was the most interesting place that Jet Blue goes, so I went. I have a blog, and I mentioned on it that I was going there. One of my readers offered to put me up, so I went. While I was there I ate at some good restaurants, visited a gold museum, went horseback riding in the countryside..."
He notices that I've been to Japan a lot of times and asks about that. More long answers. Same with Thailand and China. He leaves again.
The computer guy, who has been aloof but pleasant, walks by me to help another group. Offhandedly he asks if I have three books on Amazon. Yes, I do.
"Well, things are starting to make more sense. We're just trying to make sense of everything, and that helps. I mean... you know that you fit the profile."
"I do? What profile?"
"Oh, a drug smuggler. I mean, come on. Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Japan." (Japan?)
These guys think that I'm a drug smuggler. For the first time, I can see how it may look. I've been to a handful of central and south american countries recently with no real good reason. I have less than one change of clothes. I'm resistant to authority. From poker playing I have cash deposits in my bank account. Not the amounts I'd assume a drug smuggler would have, but still.
"Wow. I thought this was because I asked the first agent why I had to tell her how much money I made."
"You have to admit, your style of traveling is highly unusual."
"Yep. I guess it is."
The angry guy comes back and gruffly tells me to pack my stuff. No apology for assuming I was a drug smuggler and invading my privacy. No apology for being wrong. I decide to be a nice guy.
"I apologize if you felt like I was being evasive. I really wasn't. I'm used to giving short answers at customs just to keep things moving, assuming that they'll ask for more detail if they want it. I just want you to know that I wasn't trying to be disrespectful to you or your job."
"Well, now you know that's not a good approach."
A charmer to the end. I packed up my stuff and was forced to go back through security. After an interrogation lasting over an hour, I made it to my gate with ten minutes to spare. No time to take a shower at the airport club or to get a better-than-airline-food meal.
So what did I learn from this? From now on I will give definite answers, even if they aren't accurate. Don't know what I'm doing in China? I'll just say I'm staying in Shanghai the whole time, visiting a friend. I very rarely plan what I'll do on trips, but apparently that makes customs agents suspicious. I will pick some random amount of money to claim I have access to, and just offer the information immediately. Five thousand dollars should work. Enough that I'm not going to be leeching off social services, but not enough that they'll start thinking I have drug smuggler money. The question is nebulous anyway-- does it count credit cards? Retirement accounts? Stocks? Passive income? Reasonable answers like "Well, it depends what you mean by accessible" are suspicious.
I will also close all of the windows on my laptop before doing a border crossing. I had journal entries, email, and my productivity spreadsheet open. I may also install something to monitor the computer, and turn it on before I land. I have nothing illegal or incriminating on my computer, but I hate the idea that they can just snoop through my stuff. I've already changed my password to a long sentence, which I'll only use for turning the computer on.
Photo is from the Khmer Rouge S21 prison. Seems moderately relevant.
You do fit the profile: single male traveling alone with no luggage, tons of passport stamps, one-way flight (I presume), and not a citizen of either the departure or destination country. Surprised you haven't been harassed before this -- not that harassment is warranted.
This story is also part of the general category, "engineers trying to communicate with non-engineers." Engineers hear an imprecise question, and give a conditional answer, or ask for clarification. Non-engineers can often instantly answer an imprecise, malformed question with an imprecise, malformed answer -- which mysteriously seems to satisfy the questioner. Can be hard to emulate if one is used to demanding precise thinking.
It's not that mysterious. Imprecise thinking rules the world. So those of us who want to get ahead in life, or have any influence, need to learn to communicate with (the vast majority of) people who are less-than-precise. Psychology trumps logic every time. Being the IT guy on The Office is not a virtue.
And, honestly, we are all less-than-precise much of the time. Even the IT guy.
Most single male travellers don't have this issue. For some reason Canada is incredibly bad about this. My experience from driving across the border for a quick weekend city-trip was met with quite a few detailed questions, and pulling over. [All over a weekend long trip] Most passport and customs people aren't that strict. Most of the time they couldn't care less about your stamps. Your stamps won't be in order, so it makes it difficult to examine where you've been when.
I don't know... The moment things got ugly, I'd start bring up public truths/verifiable facts about yourself... Being a published author on the topic ought to help your credibility if standard answering is not getting you anywhere. "Can you look online for the titles of my published books?" Might get you past a lot, esp at the point where they are cloning your HD, and installing the backdoors.
Also I whole heartedly agree with the "engineers trying to communicate with non-engineers" comment. I'm surprised you hadn't figured out the "correct" answers sooner, they are rather simple. "What are you doing in China?" "Tourism" (If pressed further) "I'll start with visiting a friend in xyz, but from there I like to find out from local people what are the best things to see." "How much money do you have?" "A couple thousand in savings" "How are you going to support yourself in China?" "Along with my savings, I'm a published author and receive royalties."(I've done this citing computer programs I've written.) ... Unfortunately it is often easier to think of the "correct" answers after the fact...
Tynan, treat officers how they want to be treated. They want to hear answers that they need, specific and that make sense to THEM. Your goal at customs is to go through as fast as you can. Saying that you are visiting a friend is a legit answer that they want to hear and will not raise a flag and it is the truth at the time you said it, at least you had the intention to visit a friend and when you are in China of course your plans may change and you "don't know" what you will be doing there.
Your correct answers should be: - I travel light as minimalist with few bags with only things that I necessarily need.
- I am visiting a friend in China
- I have 200 cash and few(?) thousands on my bank account/credit card etc.
It makes life of officer much easier and lets you go through customs quick.
I learned it hard way when I was questioned at the border for an hour about my job and why I was going to port in Seattle when instead of 'going to the port' I could've said that my primarily reason for going to USA was for 'pleasure' or 'shopping', which a lot of Canadians do.
TL;DR - Go in the path of least resistance when you are in customs.
I'm sorry ... but TO HELL with everyone here talking about "You've been lucky." or "You shouldn't have answered questions that way."!! I'm appalled that people that seemingly otherwise identify with a world-traveler like you somehow think this type of shit is remotely acceptable. This is nothing but the direct result of the United State's long-failed War on (Some) Drugs and their forcing "allies" to abide by the same silly ass rules.
As others have said, your laptop's data was most certainly cloned: http://www.aclu.org/free-speech-technology-and-liberty/railroaded-unconstitutional-border-searches
I get that your goal here wasn't to rock the boat about your basic human rights being completely violated, but it's frightening to me to see the level of acceptance from people of all stripes.
If nothing else, I hope this serves as a warning to other travelers: You may want to consider acquiring a second laptop/device to travel with and keep it wiped clean of ANY data whatsoever.
My regards to anyone I may offend ... but please wake up ... we're in a sad state if this is a situation to just be explained away.
Assuming that I'm just 'taking it' is foolhardy. I've written letters (faxing seems to be the best way to get politicians' attention), signed petitions, donated money, talked to others, and voted. I'm against a totalitarian state period. but to think that you've got rights just because you're a white american guy with all this patriot act stuff going on is to show a deep disdain for the facts on the ground.
Wow, well said. The (bend over, grab your ankles and take it) mentality has to stop. Accusations of drugs, money, terrorism, pedophilia... and threats of jail/strip searching for not admitting to an accusation, invasion of privacy (cell phones, computer and similar devices) without reasonable cause, should not be acceptable to a Canadian citizen let alone a visitor with no outstanding warrants or past convictions. Guilty until proven innocent is no way to live.
Do you have a solution? Suppose I agree with everything you just said - what then? What are you doing about it?
We live in an imperfect world. If you had to navigate TSA as a brown person, this would not be news to you. But venting about it accomplishes nothing, or even less than that.
I don't know the formula for getting past TSA, but it's pretty clear that some answers are more likely to get their suspicions up, while other (equally truthful) answers are more likely to get you through.
There's a lot of "injustice" in the world. Pick your battles.
I'll also add these to the conversation:
Listen to this audio recording:
This lead to clear action/solution/resolution:
For the people explaining it away, they should take this post and spread it far and wide ... the absurdity speaks for itself. Acceptance/Justification is certainly not the answer.
I'm not necessarily just "venting" ... I gave two nuggets of actionable quality.
Unbelievable. I think you're lying about this story.
Travel to Canada if you aren't a Canadian citizen. They're abit paranoid about visitors. Bonus points: Do this by car for a short term stay.
A second acquaintance, white-haired, over 75 years old, soft-spoken and confrontation-averse, is taken out of line for a bag search every time he flies -- well over a dozen times in a row so far. He too is in the DHS Frequent Traveler Program, and has flown the same route twice a week for over 15 years.
How did he get on the secret always-search list? Late last summer, he brought a water faucet home in his checked luggage. DHS found it on X-ray, allowed him through without complaint (because it doesn't break any rules), but ever since, he gets the special search 100% of the time.
So stories of random abuses of power are all too believable. Do anything unusual, even if it doesn't break any rules, and you become an unindicted suspect, forever. DHS Redress web page notwithstanding, there is often no clear way to get off these lists.
I've heard too many similar cases not to believe it. In late 2011, a friend was slammed against the wall and cuffed in Toronto by DHS (yes, US Customs operates in Toronto for flights bound to the US). He was held without charge in an airport cell for hours till just after he missed his flight, then released without apology.
His offense? He legally obtained a "second valid passport" from the Department of State under a little-known program:
The customs official, and his boss, were unaware of the existence of their own employer's 2-year concurrent second passport program. Rather than knowing the law, or simply Googling it as I just did, they took a US citizen into indefinite custody, without charge, when they saw something they didn't recognize.
This guy is an oil exec in his fifties, travels hundreds of thousands of miles a year, a member of the DHS's Frequent Traveler Program, and looks so square that cops mistake him for an off-duty officer. If this guy is getting held without charge, it could happen you any of us, anytime.
Sadly enough, something similar happened to us in Dallas/Fort Worth, and we were just flying back to Chicago. The ticket agent had rescheduled us to a slightly later flight, and apparently they use the markings on the ticket of a recently rescheduled flight as an excuse to pull you out of the line to search you further. We had our 6 month old son with us, and he was searched as well. It was absolutely ridiculous as to the questions they asked as far as why we rescheduled, who rescheduled us, how we booked the initial ticket, etc. He asked where the baby's bottles were (no liquid!) and I wasn't ashamed to tell him that I was wearing them, after which the search ended. I guess he didn't want to go there.
If you go into/through Canada a lot (or out of the US a lot) you should sign up for Nexus/Global Entry. I got a Nexus card 4 years ago and have not talked to a Canadian or American passport/customs person since. It's cheap and easy.
Nexus/Global Entry only works during certain hours like 9 - 5. Not worth it for peeps driving later at night / earlier in the am like I do.
That's a driving problem, for sure. Even so, handing the border dude your Nexus card instead of a passport speeds up the process. Did it in Ogensburg, NY this summer. In fact, even though there is no Nexus lane in Ogdensburg, all the lanes have RFID readers you can point your Nexus card at for a free photo and quick transit with the border guard. Coming into the USA anyway.
But flying into and out of both Canada and the USA the kiosks are always open, and that's where its of greatest advantage to me. No long lines after a long international flight, and no hassles by the customs people.
Dude, I travel between the US and Canada all of the time. The fact that this is the first time you've had this trouble means you're lucky. I've had much worse with US customs, and with the War on Terror and the Patriot Act, border guards have all the power and you're just a mere pipsqueak. I recall Canada getting pummeled with criticism for allowing the 9/11 hijackers into North America. What most dunces in the US failed to realize is that the US border let the hijackers in. And, too, with every sampling of people you'll have a certain percentage of power hungry nobodies. For you with all your travelling it was just a matter of time. I'd count myself lucky if I were you.
I used to lie a lot when I was a kid. I wasn't intent on deceiving people, but for some reason I would just tell made up stories. They weren't even fantastic stories, they were just things that hadn't happened. I really have no idea why I did it.
One day I was hanging out with my friend Ryan and his family. We had just gone to a movie and were driving back to his house. Right as we were driving down his street I told a story to everyone in the car. I don't remember the story, but I remember it had something to do with cabinets. Hey, it was a long time ago.
Ryan's mother innocently asked a question that began with, "Wait... if you did that, then how could you have..."
What a fascinating trip. I just did this route -
Beijing -> Erlianhaote -> Zamyn Uud -> Ulan Bator
Why do I choose such circuitous, crazy routes? Well, lots of reasons.
I want to understand as much as I can about the world, and taking out of the way routes - especially through important border towns - teaches a lot.
Often, you can manage a route like this in a way that's much less expensive than direct flights. Yes, time is money, but money is also money.